Thursday, April 28, 2016

Hard and not so hard political choices

Several states have recently passed laws regarding civil rights for LGBT persons. These laws tend to restrict individual rights. They were apparently enacted as a backlash against the Supreme Court decision that legalized same sex marriage. One state that has passed such a law is North Carolina, where I lived prior to moving to Hawaii. North Carolina's law prohibits North Carolina localities from passing laws to protect the rights of LGBT persons and stipulates that individuals use the public restroom provided for persons of the gender listed on the individual's birth certificate.

By nature, I intend toward libertarianism. That is, I think that laws should be a last resort; people should enjoy maximum freedom. However, laws should establish boundaries that equitably limit the individual exercise of freedom.

For example, individuals should not have the right to discriminate against other persons based on religion, sex, political affiliation, ethnicity, race, or gender orientation. Permitting same sex marriage in no way devalues or diminishes heterosexual marriage. Arguably, just the opposite is true: legalizing same sex marriage increases respect for intact families, regardless of the composition of those families. Prohibiting municipalities from banning discrimination against LGBT persons harms LGBT individuals and harms the wider community by diminishing the state's expectation that its citizens will respect the dignity and worth of all persons. In other words, North Carolina's law limits freedom and sanctions rather than ends immoral discrimination.

North Carolina's law is also unenforceable. Who will check the genitals of all persons wishing to a use public restroom? Furthermore, will the state require everyone to carry her/his birth certificate to prove she/he is using the proper restroom? One North Carolina sheriff opposes the law as unenforceable (he refuses to station his deputies outside of public restrooms) and, because the law is so patently unenforceable, as having the unintended consequence of tacitly promoting disrespect for law and order.

If I still resided in North Carolina, I would advocate replacing gender specific restrooms with facilities designed to accommodate everyone. One option is individual restrooms. Another option is to have individual stalls (some might have only a urinal) and a common wash area. Single parents with a young child of the opposite sex can face difficult decisions when the child needs to use a public toilet. These options avoid these problems.

The fact is that the hullabaloo about restrooms masks prejudice against LGBT persons that the law allows to become immoral discrimination. I heard similar bogus arguments against allowing LGBT persons to serve in the military. When finally forced to integrate, the military had no significant problems. People simply need to respect one another as God's creation, regardless of gender or sexual orientation.

Mutual respect is not a panacea for all political conflict. Hard choices do exist. For example, abortion opponents generally believe that life begins at conception and abortion is therefore murder. Proponents of abortion rights disagree that life begins at conception. Both sides agree that murder is wrong. Unfortunately, answers to the question of when life begins remain elusive. Abortion is therefore a political question that forces hard choices. How can we respect individual choices and beliefs while also not legalizing murder?

Constructive political engagement, like any negotiation process, often will begin with easy questions (e.g., LGBT rights) and then proceed to harder questions. Sometimes, the best feasible outcome is to agree to disagree, accepting that living in a democracy means that one will not always have one's opinions prevail.

Constructive political engagement, like any negotiation process, can sometimes advance by parsing large issues into smaller issues. For example, treating abortion as a complex problem rather than a bifurcated choice between murder and respect for life can move a conversation forward while reducing the number of abortions, a goal about which most people agree. Laws against abortion have proven ineffectual and harmful. Women who seek abortions obtain them from unlicensed practitioners in potentially dangerous ways. Furthermore, the number of women who seek abortions declines as the number of unplanned pregnancies declines. Improving access to birth control therefore is an effective approach to reducing the frequency of abortion. Also, convenient and affordable alternatives to abortion, such as the morning after pill, can further reduce the number of women seeking abortions.

In sum, politics need not degrade into irreconcilable polarization. Most people – that is, almost everybody except sociopaths – have good hearts, solid civic values, and a positive vision of communal life. Together, we can uphold the rights of all through mutual respect while constructively promoting the common good in public discourse and government.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Freedom and submission

We humans value freedom for at least two reasons. First, the idea of freedom is integral to our self-image, i.e., we generally think of ourselves as being free and widely identify freedom as a primary good. The central narratives of the Old and New Testaments, the Exodus and the resurrection, both have liberation as their defining theme. Second, because we humans believe that we are free, we hold one another morally accountable for our actions. Conversely, we deem it morally unjust to hold a person morally accountable for an act over which the person had no control. Analogously, we blame any wrongs done by a drone not on the drone but on the person(s) who authorized, programed, or controlled the drone.
Given those observations, what do the several biblical exhortations to live as a free person mean for twenty-first century Christians?
Forty plus years ago, the instruction I received in seminary tended to juxtapose freedom in Christ and bondage to sin. The latter pole was clearly evil, interpreted using historical, linguistic, and theological analysis that relied upon analogies with slavery, captivity, cravings, and compulsions. The former pole, freedom, was the good, made possible by Christ's atoning death. I do not remember anyone paying much attention to physiological factors that might limit a Christian's freedom.
Today, that juxtaposition of freedom and bondage easily seems inadequate and dated. Personal knowledge or experience of bondage is meager. Slavery, which is almost universally illegal, mainly exists in opportune shadows. Slavery's tragic legacy in the U.S. and elsewhere at best affords only opaque views of its horrors. We treat addictive cravings as the diseases that they are instead of erroneously viewing addicts as sinners who have chosen to live in bondage. Most importantly, we seem to be in the midst of what Robert Schuller perhaps presciently labelled a new reformation. Theologies of positive living and self-help as paths to freedom are rapidly displacing the old paradigm in which Christ liberates sinners.
Concurrently, contemporary discourse about human freedom in the sciences, social sciences, and sometimes the humanities often focuses on questions of whether the twin determinants of human behavior, DNA and nurture, allow any possibility for human freedom. DNA (i.e., a person's hardware) significantly determines a person's physique, abilities, and interests. Nurture – the family(ies), culture(s), and geographies of one's formative years – shape the brain patterns (i.e., human software) that, along with DNA, determine mental processes.
Perhaps the phrase limited autonomy most accurately describes human existence, sited tentatively and imprecisely between free and determined, but almost certainly much closer to the latter than to the former. Scientific advances constantly re-chart the uncertain boundaries that demarcate where and when humans appear to exercise some measure of choice. Theologians and ethicists ignore these charts at the potential cost of misclassifying human behaviors.
We emulate Jesus when we charitably and situationally understand limited autonomy in ways that manifest love and justice. This framework importantly and broadly exegetes biblical exhortations to live as a free person in terms of human flourishing. Illustratively, the revised model recognizes illnesses unrelated to sin (e.g., a cancer caused by a spontaneous DNA mutation), illnesses caused by sin (e.g., giving an STD to one's partner after unprotected sex with a prostitute), and illnesses caused by unintentional systemic failure (e.g., lead water pipes installed to provide clean water that we now know can harm the unsuspecting). Freedom may connote maximizing one's quality of life, healing and forgiveness, or working for systemic improvements while caring for individuals.
In addition to the inherent physiological constraints that limit freedom, human freedom should also have moral limits. John Dunne memorably, if unknowingly, hinted at these limits in his poem, "No man is an island":
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend's
Or of thine own were:
Any man's death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.
Donne's gender specific language sounds discordant to my twenty-first century ear. In part, that is because I hear the bias and exclusivity his words convey. To say that Donne intended his words to include men and women is to remove his words from their original cultural locus. Women, under English law, had more in common during Donne's life with chattel than they did with free persons.
Yet Donne's insight into human connectedness was correct. The death of another person – Syrian refugee, Liberian victim of Ebola, hungry child in drought stricken Bangladesh, affluent nursing home resident, or anyone else – diminishes my existence. Globalization, environmental concerns, and geopolitics relentlessly tighten the bonds linking us to one another.
Additionally, Donne's anthropocentric language sounds discordant because I increasingly recognize my connectedness to other species and to the earth itself. My actions may have consequences not just for me but also for other humans, other species, and the planet itself. The butterfly effect, chaos theory's colorful term for the potentially huge aftereffects of a seemingly inconsequential action, reminds me that my exercise of freedom can have multiple unintended, outsize effects on people, species, and things distant from me in time and space.
Both civil government and ecclesiastical structures thus should aim to constrain human freedom in ways intended to optimize and to balance the common good, the flourishing of all creation, and individual liberty. In contrast, mob rule, bullying, every type of autocracy, and the tyranny of the majority are all forms of subjection that elevate the well-being of a few above the common good and that deprive all of equal opportunity to flourish. The exclusionary policies promoted by many candidates in the 2016 elections pander to narrow slices of the electorate; these policies exemplify the breakdown of our civil structures' commitment to the common good and equal opportunity for all. Similarly, biblical exhortations to live as free persons rightly prompt Christians to reject prior generations' exclusionary lenses (masculinity, creedal homogeneity, cultural superiority, etc.). Instead, Jesus calls his disciples to support expansively inclusive and connective ethical perspectives. He challenges us to develop an ever-richer, more comprehensive ethic of reciprocal altruism that will eventually widen our civil and ecclesial circles of concern to embrace all creation.